On Married Women and Separating Sex from Procreation

On Married Women and Separating Sex from Procreation November 17, 2012

When I suggested that birth control would decrease the abortion rate, some prolifers agreed with me. Others, however, argued that using birth control actually increases the abortion rate and that if we don’t want unwanted pregnancies, well, then people should just be “responsible” and wait until they get married to have sex.

Well guess what? Being married does not make pregnancy magically “wanted”!

I have to be honest, this assumption that birth control and abortion are not an issue for married women baffles me, and it’s an assumption I’ve seen played out again and again in the wake of the recent election. I mean my goodness, Gretchen Carlson sought to explain why married women went for Romney and single women went for Obama by stating that “when you’re married, abortion is not really—or contraception for that matter—is not maybe a huge part of your life.” What? I remember thinking this as a child, but then, I had never experienced being a married woman.

I have been married for around half a decade now. My husband and I have two children. We spaced them apart intentionally, far enough apart so that they are not on top of each other but close enough together that they can be friends as they grow up. We’re in graduate school. We have neither the time nor the money for a third child. If I were to become pregnant right now, I can’t say for sure what I would do, but I can say that abortion is one of the options we would consider very seriously. Having another baby right now would upend all of our plans, both in terms of my career and in terms of our finances.

Several readers responded to those who said people just shouldn’t have sex before marriage by pointing out that married women don’t automatically want children, and asked whether married women who don’t want to have kids should just be celibate. A number of Catholic commenters responded by stating that that idea was ridiculous, because there was always Natural Family Planning. So I wrote a post critiquing Natural Family Planning. Do you know what I was told in the comments of that post? That Natural Family Planning involves being “open to the gift of life” (i.e. pregnancy).

Well guess what? I am married but I am not currently “open to the gift of life.”

There is a split between Catholic and Protestant prolifers on the use of birth control during marriage, but both groups generally assume that unmarried women who experience birth control failure will likely abort while married women who experience birth control failure will likely carry that pregnancy to term. The assumption that married women are on average more able to care for and raise a child than unmarried women is almost certainly accurate, but the idea that it’s oh so simple for a married woman to keep an unplanned pregnancy is maddeningly simplistic. Did I mention that we cannot afford a third child right now?

The rhetoric I’ve been reading both in comments on my post on the pro-life movements and in articles mentioning it elsewhere is that people just shouldn’t have sex if they’re not open to having babies. Not all prolifers are against birth control, particularly in marriage, but the rhetoric is ubiquitous. Sex should have consequences, they say. Procreation and sex are connected, and it goes against nature to separate them. Sex without consequences is bad.

The thing is, that’s me, right here, right now. I’m not open to having a baby. So should my husband and I just not have sex? I mean, if we’re not supposed to have sex unless we’re open to having babies, and if sex should always have consequences, and if sex and procreation should not be separated, isn’t that what that implies? That would mean at least three years without sex, and possibly more if we decide, as we may, that two children is enough for us. What a strange marriage that would make for!

It comes down to this: A significant segment of the pro-life movement believes that sex and procreation should always be connected, that separating the two is against morality and nature, and that sex should always have “consequences.” Some of these individuals – the most Catholic ones – might well come right out and say that if I am not open at all to becoming pregnant and having another child, I shouldn’t be having sex with my husband. We should just live lives of celibacy. Why? Because sex and procreation are connected by God and nature and should not be separated.

But here’s the thing. Just because sex and procreation are connected in nature does not mean they have to be. And just because the natural consequences of sex are pregnancy and birth does not mean we cannot mitigate those consequences. We do this sort of thing all the time. Cancer and death are naturally connected, but we strive to separate them. The natural consequences of falling in a lake are drowning, but we try to mitigate those with things like life jackets and learning to swim. Seat belts, smoke detectors, even houses themselves are ways to mitigate consequences and subvert nature. In other words, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with separating what nature has combined or with mitigating consequences. We do it all the time.

It just so happens that we can separate sex and procreation pretty effectively. There are all sorts of methods of birth control, all of which allow people to have sex without becoming pregnant. Sure, there are various failure rates, but the reality is that people have been working to separate sex and procreation for thousands of years and they will go on perfecting that separation in as science improves. The reality is that people have becoming accustomed to being able to plan when and if to have children. People have become accustomed to being able to have sex without becoming pregnant.

Yet even though we subvert nature and mitigate natural consequences all the time, this segment of the pro-life movement would have us to treat sex differently from every other part of our life. They don’t believe we are to tamper with nature when it comes to sex, even though we do so with every other area of our lives. And you know what? They can believe that. But that, quite simply, is their personal belief, and they cannot and should not either force or expect others to live by it.

Personally, I’m going to keep on cutting the tie between sex and procreation and I’m going to continue enjoying sex without the “consequences.” And yes, I’m married. And monogamous. It’s just that, believe it or not, being married does not necessarily mean women want to spend their lives going from one pregnancy to another. And the existence of birth control means we don’t have to. So the idea that birth control is just a single woman issue, and that all need for abortion would cease if people would wait to have sex until marriage? Just stop that. It makes you look silly.

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